Sunday, January 6, 2013

The Great Lap Child Debate

To lap-child or not to lap-child...that is a question a lot of parents are facing nowadays. As many of you probably already know, if you are flying with a baby under two years old they can travel in your lap, most of the time for free. In some cases (internationally), a fee is charged, and in sometimes that "fee" can be thousands of dollars. The industry standard is 10% on international tickets...and that's NOT 10% of what you paid, or 10% of the miles you spent...it's 10% of whatever published fare the airline wants to charge, meaning the sky's the limit.

There's no argument that the safest place for the baby is in their own seat. Things like clear air turbulence and the basic laws of physics can turn a cute and cuddly 15 lb. infant into a dangerous projectile. Often buying the baby their own seat is more comfortable for everyone, not just baby. If you decide to bring a car seat along, you child is probably used to sleeping there, plus you have the added benefit of not having to hold him/her for 2,3...10 hours. It's really a win, win. That said, I understand the financial constraints that many families face today and some simply can't afford to buy that extra seat when traveling domestically. Trust me, I get it- I've even decided to lap-child my own son on occasion (although he did end up getting his own seat for free). The "financial hardship" argument is huge part of why the FAA hasn't changed the rule on lap-childing; they fear if they do it will force more people to take the road, and statistically speaking, flying in a parents arms is still safer than driving in a car seat.

So that's the argument behind the story. I know any discussion relating to traveling with children is an invitation to get flamed and people always have strong opinions on the subject. Beyond what I've shared above, I don't really care to "soap-box" further on the issue. I'm obviously a big fan of buying baby his own seat, but as I mentioned above there were also times when I decided not to. What you choose to do as a parent is your right, and others should respect that without passing judgement- that of course is in a perfect world. Anyway, as the disclaimer goes on just about everything I write here regarding travel with children- take it or leave it; I'm simply sharing my experiences so perhaps others out there are able to learn from them.

The first time we lap-childed baby CJ was during his first flight from SMF to SFO on the way to Maui. We had purchased an extra ticket, but a standard size rear facing infant carrier does not fit in the EMB-120 Brasilia (well, it sorta does, but at a really weird angle which is beyond design specifications). Dad held the baby for the short 20-minute flight and we strapped down the infant carrier, without infant, as best we could.

The second time we lap-childed was on that same trip but on the way home from Maui. Our LAX-SMF flight was oversold, so we volunteered our son's seat and took a $200 VDB (voluntary denied boarding) voucher. Because of this no one got bumped, and since it was the last flight of the day, it also meant nobody had to spend the night in Los Angeles. I then filed for a refund for the unused portion of the ticket. We came out almost $300 ahead on the short 1-hour flight. It also worked to our advantage because we didn't originally have seats together. On a CRJ there are 3 oxygen masks on the right side of the plane (2 on the left) so since the gate agent had to move some people around anyway because of FAA regulation, she just sat us all together. I know there is "no price on safety", but the money we got back almost covered the cost baby CJ having his own seat for rest of the trip. While I wouldn't advocate "plan on selling your seat on the rare occasion your flight is oversold", things like this do happen from time to time so why not take advantage of it. Also didn't hurt that baby still got the miles on this segment. We're only talking a few hundred miles here, but he'll take what he can get.

My infant "lap child" on an empty flight to JAC. E+ on a CRJ-700.
The third and final time I lap-childed our baby was on a domestic award ticket. I'll be honest about it- the reason being I was too poor cheap to buy my son his own seat. I was traveling by myself with him from San Francisco to Jackson Hole, which one of the most insanely overpriced expensive domestic markets and why I opted for the Saver Award. I noticed when I was picking out flights that the planes were virtually empty (I imagine due to the $700 price tag). You can find this information by looking at the seat map. While it is not a very reliable method, you can also use this to guess whether or not a flight could be oversold. On this particular trip, I knew there would be plenty of space, so I went ahead with the reservation without getting an extra ticket. When I got to the airport, the check-in agents printed out the standard lap-childing documents to get through security (even as a lap child your infant still needs to be declared on your reservation, and still requires a boarding pass of sorts). I then talked to the gate agent about bringing my car seat on board. If you choose to do this, understand that you are not entitled, and you are essentially asking for a favor. Of course if you are nice about it, the agent really has no good reason to decline your request. All you need to do is say something like, "Hi, I'm traveling with my infant son/daughter (introduce them if they're cute). I was wondering how many empty seats you had and if I could possibly bring his/her car seat on the plane with me if that is ok with you." It worked on all the flights. It's still best to check with the agent, even if you already know (or think you know) that the plane will be empty. On our way home, flying JAC-LAX-SFO, an earlier LAX-SFO flight had been cancelled so our flight was no longer as empty as I'd planned on. In this case, the gate agent was able to reassign our seat(s). We moved out of Economy Plus to the second-to-last row of the A-320, but CJ still got his own seat, and it meant I didn't have to hold him. I also saved 25,000 miles.
 
On all our other trips we have booked the baby his own seat (including our upcoming Singapore-Bali-India adventure), but that hasn't been exactly easy either. If you read my Breaking up with United post, you get a sense of all the different ways they've split our reservation, trouble with upgrades, and even more trouble with seat assignments. In some cases traveling with CJ in his own ticketed seat was a hassle and it meant still having to talk to a gate agent, just like I did when he traveled "in my lap". In the end I guess that is more a bad reflection on the airline vs. the practice of buying a separate ticket for your kiddo. Apparently, not all airlines value the extra business though. Similarly on Singapore Airlines, their policy is to not give us the bassinet location in the bulkhead because we bought that extra ticket. I guess their rationale is to assign it to someone "more in need" of the extra space. In that case I'm not about to pay 10% (in cash) of a full-fare international Y ticket on the "world's leading airline" just to sit there, but I do plan on calling back 48-hours prior to our departure to try and score that coveted first row, if no one else has claimed it by then. Anyway, all said and done, I still think buying baby their own seat is the best thing to do (in most cases) and we will continue to do so (most of the time) until he turns 2.

If you do plan on bringing a car seat on board, make sure it is FAA approved. Most are and will have a sticker on the side indicating that they are approved for use on aircraft. Some airlines (Singapore) are very up-tight about this and they will check. I also recommend getting a reusable gate-check bag (like this one), in case you run in to any problems (the seat not fitting), decide to VDB, or fly lap child with them and can't get the extra seat. The bag is a good way to make sure their stuff stays clean in case you do have to check it.

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